Revealed: WaPo Editor Fred Hiatt's Bizarre Obsession with Demonizing Russia
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I then asked Louis what he thought about Hiatt's larger assumption: that Le Figaro 's sources in Paris could not be trusted because the French might be worried about upsetting Russia. Again, Louis laughed in disbelief: "This sounds like a kind of conspiracy theory. You would have to believe that judges and police officials in two cities conspired to manipulate a Le Figaro journalist in order to plant a story that was not very big news here in the first place. Why would the authorities go through all of this effort for such a small story? I find this idea of a conspiracy completely unlikely." Louis was disappointed at Hiatt's accusations: "I suppose I might feel honored that the Washington Post bothers to write about me, but you know, I feel a bit surprised. If he called me I could have explained how I wrote the story. But he didn't try. Quite often we're very impressed here by how American journalists work, the high standards they use to source stories…. So it's disappointing to learn that [Hiatt] came to his conclusions about the way I work without even calling me."
Louis gave me the contact information for assistant prosecutor Palpacuer, who is overseeing the investigation. I tapped an old writer/translator friend in Paris, Thierry Marignac, to interpret for me. Palpacuer confirmed everything Louis told me, although the case had moved a bit further since then: "The amounts of mercury were so tiny that they were not toxic. We took blood samples from Moskalenko's family, and the results show that the mercury amounts in their blood were insignificant. In any case, mercury would have to be inhaled or injected in order to be lethal," Palpacuer said. "The investigation is not closed yet and has been given to the criminal division of the Strasbourg police department. But we know the former owner of the vehicle broke a barometer in it before selling the car, and those amounts correspond to the amounts we found."
In response to Hiatt's theory that the investigation was unreliable and probably influenced by Paris officials who didn't want to upset Russia, Palpacuer burst out laughing: "This is beyond me, I am sorry. I work with the evidence I have before me in the investigation. But really--the Russians? Influencing this case? I don't know what to say, it's ridiculous. I would just say that we welcome any new evidence if anyone has it. If there is evidence of Russians influencing this investigation, I would welcome it."
Evidence. Facts. These were not the sorts of things Hiatt's response to me were concerned with. However, Hiatt did ask me to send along any new information about the Moskalenko case. Well, here it is--information that came with the magic of a couple of phone calls.
This leaves us where we started. Will the Post retract this piece of poorly sourced, unprofessional editorializing? Will the editorial page be held accountable by its ombudsman and others at the Post? After all, the ombudsman managed to attack the paper's alleged "liberal bias" recently--a highly debatable position. But in this case, we have a clear example of a failure to get the facts right, and a further failure to retract those errors.
Given the Post's broader record over the past decade, from the war in Iraq to the conflict in South Ossetia, and Hiatt's response to this case, it's worth asking if the editorial page has mishandled other crucial decisions, especially those relating to Russia, as badly as it has bungled the Moskalenko story. It's a question that needs answering.